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Amazing AmeriCorps

We’re highlighting all things Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) in 2021 as the program marks its 20th anniversary. To learn more about FMNP, view the first blog post here.

 

Click the image to download and enjoy the May desktop calendar in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Get an early download of next month’s here.

 

There is a line in the Florida Master Naturalist Program mission statement: “The FMNP teaches those who teach others about Florida’s unique ecosystems and wildlife.” As FMNP instructors in the Florida Panhandle, Sheila Dunning and Laura Tiu teach the FMNP Coastal Module to a new cohort of AmeriCorps volunteers each summer.

AmeriCorps is a voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations, and other donors that engages adults in public service work with a goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the

AmeriCorp team members brush up on animal ID at the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach, FL (credit Laura Tiu)

community.” Participants are provided housing and a salary for up to two years, as well as an opportunity to earn college credits. The AmeriCorps team, under the Northwest Florida State College Foundation, works with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance to build living shorelines and educate K-12 students, as well as participate in restoration work for local Florida State Parks. In 2020, the 11 members came from all over the United States, had a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and were not all familiar with Florida ecosystems.

During the 2020-21 season, FMNP instructors engaged the AmeriCorps students virtually with the PowerPoints and videos.  While adhering to CDC guidelines on social distancing and mask-wearing, participants were able to physically experience the coastal dune systems, marine mammals, and aspects of the fishing industry.  AmeriCorps members then used their training to go above and beyond. They transformed the monthly delivered traditional in-person, hands-on Grasses in Classes science lessons, a curriculum originally created as a FMNP class project in 2016, to weekly engaging virtual lessons that get kids excited about our local environment. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, this incredible AmeriCorps team even created a virtual Grasses in Classes field trip for the elementary

AmeriCorp learn valuable interpretation skills at the Destin History and Fishing Museum (credit Laura Tiu)

students.

One 2020 volunteer, Renee Gomez, was among those that came to AmeriCorps without an environmental background. Although she shared that she was initially unsure of herself in tasks like identifying plants and animals, “after the Master Naturalist training, I was much more confident in talking about coastal habitats with the community and my co-workers. One story that really stands out to me is being able to talk to my students about the different kinds of adaptations that certain fish have. I even received a question about the kinds of fins that fish had, and I was able to look up the answer to in my Master Naturalist handbook. I really enjoyed our field trips and the knowledge that I gained from this training.”

Renee Gomez teaching Grasses in Classes virtually (credit Renee Gomez)

The AmeriCorps program is currently recruiting 12 full-time members for the 2021-22 cohort who will work collaboratively with participating schools to implement the contextual STEM environmental curriculum, Grasses in Classes. Members will have many opportunities to engage in service learning in the area of environmental education and stewardship and work out in the field completing environmental projects in our communities. We look forward to meeting and teaching the new group about the coastal environment in Florida. For more information go to: https://www.nwfsc.edu/about/partners/americorps/

You can follow the adventures of this year’s cohort at instagram.com/nwf_environmental_stewards.

For more information, contact AmeriCorps Northwest Florida Environmental Stewards Director Laurie Von Kaenel at vonkaenl@nwfsc.edu.

Laura Tiu is the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa and Walton Counties Florida Sea Grant agent; and Sheila Dunning is the UF/IFAS Extension Okaloosa County Commercial Horticulture agent.